House, Senate give road thumbs up

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Alaska Legislature rushed Monday to vote on a resolution supporting the construction of a 68.5-mile highway skirting East Lynn Canal to connect Juneau and Skagway.

The House and Senate passed resolutions stating their approval of the proposed $281 million road linking the state capital to the continental road system.

Both chambers hurried to pass the resolution as the public comment period for the project's environmental impact statement ended Monday.

A handful of Southeast Alaska delegates and other Democrats contested the resolution but were ultimately defeated when the poll showed legislators voted with their parties. The House voted 26-14 and the Senate voted 12-8.

"There's no power to this (resolution)," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. "It's just playing games instead of letting people make their decisions."

Democrats such as Berkowitz, from Anchorage, were informed of the proposed resolution minutes before the floor session began, giving him and other skeptics of the project little time to prepare their arguments.

The statement was introduced on the floor and voted on shortly thereafter. Resolutions do not require committee referrals, which stretch out the approval process over several days or weeks.

For Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, who sponsored the resolution in the House, this was not a sneak attack. It was months in the making, he said.

"There was 60 days to act. It would have been impatient to do it on the first day, rather than the last day," the Juneau Republican said.

Some senators and representatives thought the process cheated their constituents by not allowing time for comments. Committees typically reserve time for citizens to testify in person or through phone links.

"I don't think the right way is to drop a resolution on our desks without any input," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau. "That's terrible process."

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Berkowitz tried to soften the blow in the House by adding amendments to the draft. None was successful.

One of the amendments, designed to safeguard the state from dipping into the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for the road, was rejected. Weyhrauch dismissed the gesture as a political strategy.

"It had nothing to do with anything in the resolution. It's there to try and use it against people later on. That was the easiest amendment to vote against," said Weyhrauch. The permanent fund will be used to build the highway without a vote from the people and a Constitutional amendment, he said.

Voting on the resolution put lawmakers such as Bill Thomas, R-Haines, in a tight spot.

"It's the kind of situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said. The city of Haines passed its own resolution saying the citizens prefer improved ferry service over road construction. Yet he voted for the legislative resolution.

Also opposing the resolution were legislators from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, who favor moving the capital to their area. Approving the Juneau highway has been understood by many lawmakers as a mandate on keeping the capital in Juneau.

"When voting today, consider if this location is the proper location for your government," said Rep. Carl Gatto, a Palmer Republican.

During the floor debates, lawmakers gave considerable weight to a 2002 poll commissioned by the Alaska Committee, which said more than 60 percent of Alaskans believed that it was important for Juneau to be road-accessible.

The Southeast Alaska Transportation plan also outlines more funding and restructuring of the Alaska Marine Highway System, calling for more inter-island service and more mainline ships.

"The whole goal is to improve the ferry system, not diminish it," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

But some lawmakers were not convinced it's feasible to build a highway and boost the aging fleet ferries.

"They want to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on this project. What happens to projects around the rest of the state?" said Elton.

After the state study is reviewed, the next obstacle is construction funding, said Dave Manly, director of communications at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. So far, Congress set aside $15 million to continue exploring the idea, he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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